This is a letter I wrote in response to a couple of letters in protest of us serving foie gras at Eleven:
Ms. P..., Ms. O..., Ms. B..., and Mr. S...
Thanks for your notes. I understand your feelings and, upon review of the information supplied you, I fully understand your dismay. The images and claims of anti-foie gras literature make strong statements that are impossible to disregard. I know, they caught my attention too. If you'd allow, I'd like a moment to reply and share with you the knowledge I have acquired personally.
I have always deeply appreciated and fully respected the choices that people make when they eat. Every day, I and the almost 1000 people that work with me at big Burrito Restaurant Group feed thousands of people. We feed celiacs, diabetics, gluttons, anorexics, vegetarians, raw foodists, Atkins dieters, low carb dieters, high carb dieters, fat-free dieters, Kosher Jews, Christians eating only fish on Fridays, carnivores trying to observe meatless Mondays, local foodies, gourmands, people completely oblivious to any food politics and issues, and, of course, vegans. We take great pride on being able to provide food that is appealing, safe, delicious, satisfying, and healthy to everyone that comes through our door, no matter how they eat or what the eat or don't. And we take great care with the food we make watching for freshness, flavor, quality, and safety. And because there are only two interactions actions in life more intimate than placing food from one's hands into another's body, what we do, we do seriously and with respect.
Part of this duty we feel involves ensuring that the food we provide is safe and wholesome and is respectful to ourselves, the diner and the earth. We believe that there is honor in the efforts of the farmer to grow the tomatoes, the forager to find the ramps, the baker to make the bread, and the rancher who raises and kills animals. We also believe in cooking, we need to honor the ingredients, to respect the life that is passing so that we all may sustain ourselves. To waste food is to desecrate the sacrifice of the steer or wild ramp that died to feed us. Finally, we believe that to be able to serve the foods we do, we must have understanding of how these foods are produced, and what processes they endure to arrive at our back door. From understanding the three year lead time and annual spring harvest of the asparagus to knowing and seeing with our eyes the nature of the feedlot and slaughterhouse, we continually push to educate ourselves on all manner of food production.
Of course, there is more at stake in understanding the lifecycle of swordfish than in knowing the recent history of a head of cauliflower. In my lifetime as a cook and a chef, I have watched these powerful fish shrink from multi-hundred pound beasts to pups less then 90 pounds that were captured long before they matured to breeding age. This is why you'll almost never see us sell swordfish unless it is from a hand-harpooned animal well in excess of breeding size. I have visited slaughterhouses and chicken farms to witness first hand how the animals are raised, killed, and processed. The chicken we use, whether the chicken fajita at Mad Mex or the Heritage Farms chicken entree at Eleven, is from healthy birds that have lived with access to clean air and water, been allowed to socialize and move about, and are killed in a rapid, humane fashion. Furthermore, this meat needs to be processed cleanly, safely, and in a natural, healthy way.
So, it is in this vein that we looked into the industry of the production of foie gras. As we have looked into our hearts and at our food chain, we long ago decided that this process, one fraught with extravagant claims from both antagonists and supporters, one that engenders so much emotional response, necessitated our investigation. When we set out to understand this process more, we were absolutely surprised with what we observed. Honestly, we expected to be upset, to find that there was truth behind the grainy black and white pictures and frightening statistics spread by VFA and similar organizations. Would this have proven to be true, we would have ceased to serve the dish and to never serve it again. What we found at Hudson Valley Foie Gras was a model of animal care with a real dedication to the animals' welfare.
The birds are treated with better care than any animal production I have ever witnessed, including the pastured chickens raised for us by Heritage Farms. During the first part of their lives, four weeks or so, the ducks at Hudson Valley are free to wander about poultry houses, interacting and having access to unlimited food and water. The houses are well-ventilated and comfortable, although kept dim to ensure a calm environment. At that point, they are separated into large pens in groups of ten where they spend the last three weeks of their lives. From this point on, they only ever interact with one human person. This person provides all feeding and care for the next three weeks until the end of their lives. The attendant feeds them, brings water to them, monitors their health and well-being. The attendants are paid well and are generally congenial. The only stress evidenced is when, as the feedings are done and the handler moves the animals from one side of the pen to the other, the last duck expresses distress at being separated from his/her penmates. When they are killed and processed, it it with as much dignity as any process in any slaughterhouse we've seen.
Funny, but in all the years I have thought about foie gras, whether it was right or wrong, whether I was supporting an elitist, brutal food product or sharing a delicious morsel produced with care and dedication, I never until recently thought about how the economics of the process drive the care of the animals. In chicken farming, each 4# bird brings the farmer approximately $2, or about $0.50 a pound. The price per pound to a hog farmer or beef farmer is about the same. But in foie gras production, each 6# duck can bring the farmer up to $60, or around $10 per pound, most of that from the sale of the livers. If the livers are not top quality, which happens when the birds are ill or stressed, the farmer loses a lot of money. Liver quality is inverse geometricly related to animl stress. So it is within their best economic interests to treat the birds well as much as it is for Kobe beef producers to keep Waygu cattle happy. These farmers have learned, as many moder, holistic animal producers are learning, that to respect the health and happiness of the animal not only leads to a more humane existence for the animal but is economicly
So, is the purpose of this letter to convince you to love foie gras? No. Is it to convince you that eating meat is good and that you should renounce your values? No. It is simply to share with you the fact that our actions go not unconsidered, and that we do not serve things once living with callous disregard for their lives.
Thank you for your time.
big Burrito Restaurant Group